How children’s cognitive development affects word learning

How children’s cognitive development affects word learning

Why are nouns easier to learn than verbs? And what makes adjectives the hardest of all?

You have probably observed that, most of the time, language acquisition is effortless for children, as long as they have continuous exposure to linguistic input. If this is the case, you may wonder, why instructional methods for vocabulary teaching are needed at all? Isn’t vocabulary acquisition a natural process like language acquisition in general?

There are two points to make regarding this question: the first is that, even if the grammar and basic vocabulary of someone’s native language are acquired naturally, there’s still a considerable number of more complex and sophisticated words that children may not come across in their daily lives, unless someone intentionally creates relevant opportunities for them to do so.

Of course, this could mean that such words are not needed for someone to survive, but, arguably, they are needed for someone to excel. A broader vocabulary allows the comprehension of more complex texts and the expression of more elaborated ideas — skills that are useful in both academic and social life.

The second relevant point is that vocabulary acquisition depends on the cognitive developments that happen naturally as a child grows up and that determine the type of concepts (s)he can grasp at any given age. For example, the acquisition of words for concrete concepts is easier and happens earlier than the acquisition of words for abstract concepts.

Putting these two points together then, the ideal scenario for vocabulary learning is one where children are intentionally given opportunities to learn new words, and where these opportunities are adjusted to the child’s developmental stage and the cognitive abilities that come with it.

Cognitive development and word learning

Let’s have a closer look at some cognitive developments and the way they affect the ability to learn new words. First, studies report that children’s early vocabulary across languages contains more nouns than verbs and adjectives (Graham et al. 2009). The most plausible explanation for this is that nouns commonly refer to concrete objects that children can perceive with their senses in their environment. This immediate perception often accompanied by a caregiver saying ‘This is a doll/rabbit/banana’ makes the acquisition of concrete nouns straightforward.

Verbs, on the other hand, are more challenging to grasp because, even if they refer to actions that are perceivable with the senses, their range of reference may still be rather difficult to delimit; for example, the verb ‘to break’ refers to the result of an action (Anna only broke the vase if the vase ends up being broken), whereas the verb ‘to run’ refers to a manner of moving (Anna is only running if she is moving fast enough without her feet touching the ground at the same time). Thus, children have to identify which aspect of an action a verb refers to in order to be able to grasp its meaning (Tomasello 1995).

Similarly, grasping the meaning of adjectives is somewhat more challenging because of the diversity of their possible meanings: for example, adjectives can refer to stable and perceivable traits (‘green’, ‘round’), to perceivable but temporary traits (‘fast’, ‘loud’), to emotional states (‘relieved’, ‘upset’) etc. An additional complexity that makes some adjectives hard to grasp is that they are context-relative; that is, a tall building is expected to be much taller than a tall 5-year old and acknowledging this context-dependence is a skill that develops gradually during childhood (see Syrett et al. 2006).

A mastery of processes

A different development that affects the type of words a child can learn at any given age is the mastery of processes such as compounding and affixing which improve significantly by early adolescence (Nippold 2014). The mastery of these processes helps the acquisition of more sophisticated words, for example, compounding takes ‘super’ and ‘natural’ and gives us ‘supernatural’, and affixing takes ‘contradiction’ and gives us ‘contradictory’.

Finally, another cognitive ability that develops gradually and affects vocabulary acquisition is abstract thinking (Nippold 2014). Abstract thinking enables children to grasp the meaning of words that refer to concepts that are not perceivable with the senses, like ‘awareness’ or ‘freedom’.

Abstract thinking also contributes to the comprehension of figurative language which enables children to master the additional meanings of already familiar words, e.g. ‘cold’ in the sense of ‘distant’, ‘broken’ said for a heart, ‘absorb’ meaning ‘to captivate’. Finally, abstract thinking facilitates verbal reasoning which goes hand in hand with the grasp of analytical vocabulary, e.g. words for presenting an argument, like ‘inference’ and ‘assumption’, and words for expressing a certain point of view, like ‘consider’ and ‘perspective’.

Overall then, it’s all about finding the right balance between knowing what types of concepts children have the cognitive abilities to learn at any given age, and encouraging them to take a few steps further from what they already know. It’s on considerations like these that the progression of our materials from the Social Journey to the Narrative Journey are based on.


Graham S. A., San Juan V., and Vucatana E. 2009. ‘The acquisition of words’. In E.L. Bavin and L.R. Naigles (eds). The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 369-387.

Nippold, M. A. 2014. ‘Adolescent language development and use’. In P. J. Brooks & V. Kempe (eds.). Encyclopedia of Language Development. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications. Pp. 3-7.

Syrett, K., Bradley, E., Kennedy, C., & Lidz, J. 2006. ‘Shifting standards: Children’s understanding of gradable adjectives’. In Deen, K. Ud, Nomura, J., Schulz, B., & Schwartz, B. D. (eds.), Proceedings of the Inaugural Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition Cambridge, MA: UConn Occasional Papers in Linguistics 4. Pp. 353–64.

Tomasello, M. 1995. ‘Joint attention as social cognition’. In Moore, C. & Dunham, P. J. (eds.), Joint Attention: Its Origins and Role in Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Pp. 103-120.